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Sunday, June 16, 2024

With Xavi leaving Barcelona in the summer, who should they consider to replace him?

Xavi led Barcelona to the Spanish title last season but after a calamitous 5-3 home defeat against Villarreal on Saturday, he announced he will stand down on June 30.

Barca were knocked out of the Copa del Rey quarter-finals on Wednesday, suffering a 4-2 extra-time defeat away against Athletic Bilbao. That result all but ended any realistic hopes of winning a trophy in 2023-24.

In La Liga, they trail leaders Real Madrid by 10 points. They play Napoli in the Champions League last 16 next month but success on Europe’s elite stage seems unlikely.

Madrid humiliated them 4-1 to win the Supercopa de Espana final this month — a competition where Xavi hoped to once again find a spark that would help turn his side’s season around, as happened a year ago.

The 44-year-old former Barcelona and Spain midfield stalwart had received several messages of support from senior club figures, such as president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco, and had repeatedly said he remained convinced he can turn the situation around.

But all that changed on Saturday. “I took this decision days ago,” said Xavi. “I already knew it. But it’s time to make it public.

“I think the players could not free themselves up. I don’t want to be a problem for the club, but the opposite.”

With Xavi’s impending departure confirmed, Barcelona must look to who comes next. But there is the significant issue of their stricken finances, which means they will struggle to bring in even a modestly-paid replacement.

The Athletic takes a look at some of the potential options out there…

Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta (Las Palmas)

Looking around La Liga, the most obvious candidate as any potential Xavi replacement with ‘Barca DNA’ is Las Palmas’ coach Garcia Pimienta.

Las Palmas are one of the revelations of the Spanish top-flight season. Promoted last year, the club from the Canary Islands have the second-lowest budget in La Liga but are in the shake-up for European qualification.

Garcia Pimienta’s team have a clear identity and way of playing, based on the principles the 49-year-old learned in almost three decades at Barca, first as a player, then as a coach at La Masia — their famed youth academy.

Garcia Pimienta took charge at Las Palmas in 2022 (Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

The Catalan won many plaudits for his work at that level, which included winning the 2018 UEFA Youth League (the under-19s equivalent to the Champions League) and helping oversee the progression of young players ranging from Lionel Messi to Ansu Fati. Some at Barcelona saw him as a future first-team coach, but not Laporta, who fired him from the Barcelona Atletic (the club’s B team, made up of youth players) job soon after regaining the presidency in 2021.

Garcia Pimienta has subsequently criticised Barca for relying too much on outside signings who displace their homegrown youngsters.

Appointing Garcia Pimienta to oversee the development of Gavi, Lamine Yamal, Pau Cubarsi and other talented teenagers would be a sign of Barcelona returning to the philosophy that underpinned their biggest triumphs.

Dermot Corrigan

Michel (Girona)

Considering Barcelona’s financial situation, a good candidate among their realistic options would be Michel. He knows La Liga well and has adapted very well to Catalan culture, which remains an important part of the Barcelona job, while coaching nearby Girona.

Born in Madrid, Michel made an effort to integrate himself and speak Catalan — learning it from his elderly neighbours — and has already established himself as an idol in Girona. Without a big budget or big names, he has moulded a side who play some of the best football in the Spanish top flight.

Girona have been La Liga’s surprise leaders for much of the season (Cristian Trujillo/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Most importantly, it is the kind of football Barca want to play. Girona’s 51 goals scored in La Liga are second only to Bayern Munich’s 56 in the German Bundesliga across Europe’s top five leagues. Their 4-2 away win against Barca last month felt like the best kind of audition for the job from Michel.

The 48-year-old lost key players at the start of the season, including Oriol Romeu to Barcelona. Two players Barca didn’t want, Eric Garcia and Pablo Torre, went the other way, but Girona have had the last laugh.

Michel makes his players better — that is something Barcelona need.

Laia Cervello Herrero

Thiago Motta (Bologna)

With so few coaches on the market, Barcelona might look to poach from one of Europe’s high-performing teams.

Motta, who spent eight years at Barcelona as a player and has turned Italian side Bologna into one of Europe’s most intriguing, possession-based sides, fits that bill.

Now 41, Motta had a rocky start to his managerial career, getting fired by Genoa after just two months, but last season he led Bologna to a ninth-placed finish — their highest in Serie A in 11 years — and they are currently only two points off fourth.

Motta made 147 appearances for Barca between 2001 and 2007 (Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

He has revolutionised their playing style; only two teams (champions Napoli and Fiorentina) average more possession in Serie A this season and only two (Juventus and Inter Milan) have conceded fewer goals. Bologna look to control a game, luring the opposition out of their shape with patient, brave possession play, before hitting quickly when spaces open up.

Perhaps a move to Barcelona and the pressure that job brings would be a risk at such an early point in his coaching career, but Motta has brought solidity to a slipping-and-sliding sleeping giant of Italian football.

Barca could do much worse than to call on their former player again.

Thom Harris

Rafael Marquez (Barcelona Atletic)

Former Barcelona and Mexico defender Marquez — who was a team-mate of Xavi and Deco at the Camp Nou — is highly regarded among decision-makers at the club. His Atletic side are seventh in the third tier of Spanish football.

Hired for that job in July 2022, the now 44-year-old has a good relationship with Laporta (Marquez publicly expressed support during his successful 2021 election campaign) and is also very close to Deco.

Marquez in December 2023 (NoeliaDeniz/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last season, Marquez’s youngsters reached the play-off semi-finals for promotion to the second division, losing out to their Real Madrid counterparts over two legs. That was considered a good achievement and he has a strong connection with the club’s culture and desired way of playing — but he remains unproven as a manager at the elite level.

Club sources have described Marquez as the only candidate to have been timidly lined up to replace Xavi in case of emergency. But hiring him to lead the first team would be extremely risky.

Pol Ballus



Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)

If Barca fans could ask for any manager in world football, it would be Guardiola — however unlikely a return is.

The 53-year-old is the best coach in the world, he grew up with this club in his veins and he took them to the very top during his four years as coach from 2008-12.

“If I’m coaching here or anywhere else, or I’m an assistant coach, and Barca call me, I would go. It’s my club,” Guardiola said in January last year.

Guardiola, pictured with Messi in April 2010 (Lluis GeneE/AFP via Getty Images)

He was justifying the decision by his former assistant Mikel Arteta to leave his Manchester City staff for the manager’s role at Arsenal, a club Arteta had similarly played for and captained, but it led some Barca fans to believe the door was not completely closed on a glorious return for Guardiola.

Fantasising about that can’t hurt. It’s just too bad he’s still happy in Manchester after almost eight years.

Laia Cervello Herrero

(Top photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

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